Switzerland’s Great Cities
Focusing on Switzerland's often-overlooked urban charms, we explore lakeside Luzern, cobbled Bern, spire-filled Zürich, and sophisticated Lausanne. We'll enjoy eye-opening art, from Chagall and Klee to the works of asylum inmates. We'll ring a very big bell high up in a church spire, float down a rushing river, and ponder Switzerland's pragmatic drug policies and hidden underground arsenals. And it's all before a backdrop of stunning natural beauty.
This was founded as an abbey church for a convent in 853, when Zürich was little more than a village. The current building, which sits on the same footprint as its Carolingian predecessor, dates from 1250. With the Reformation of Zwingli, the church was taken by the Zürich town council in 1524 and gutted to fit Zwingli's taste. Today, it's famous for its windows by Marc Chagall.
In the 14th century, this bridge was built at an angle as part of the town ramparts, designed to connect the town's medieval fortifications. In the 17th century, the bridge was decorated with paintings depicting the development of the town, as well as its two patron saints. After a fire in 1993, the bridge was painstakingly rebuilt. Though many paintings were lost, there are burnt and charred paintings still in their original spots.
Open from sunrise to dusk, the huge sculpture (33 feet long by 20 feet tall) is carved right into a cliff face, over a reflecting pool in a peaceful park. Though it's often overrun with tour groups, a tranquil moment here is genuinely moving.
The Fortress Fürigen (Festung Fürigen) shows you another face of the country, part of the reason why Switzerland was able to remain peaceful and neutral: its elaborate and secret system of bunkers and fortresses. This fascinating exhibit is open only on weekends, April through October. It's an easy trip from Luzern by train or boat.
Zytglogge-Turm (Clock Tower)
Bern's famous clock tower was part of the original wall marking the first gate to the city (c. 1250). The clock, which dates back to 1530, performs four minutes before each hour. Enthusiasts can pay to tour the medieval mechanics — early Swiss engineering at its best (every afternoon April–Oct).
Bern's 15th-century Catholic-turned-Protestant cathedral is capped with a 330-foot-tall tower, the highest in Switzerland (finished in 1893). It's free to enter the cathedral, but you'll pay a few francs to huff up the spiral staircase to a viewpoint at the base of the steeple.
With his wavy building mirroring the wavy landscape of the Bern countryside, Italian architect Renzo Piano celebrates the creative spirit of Swiss-born artist Paul Klee (1879–1940). The center, which fosters music and theater as well as the visual arts, has a mission: to bring art to the people. This cultural center keeps about 200 of Klee's pieces on display (out of a collection of 4,000). It's the best place in the world to experience and learn about this modernist painter of lively, almost childlike art.
The Berner Float and Marzilibad
Join Bern's citizens in a float down the Aare River. (Bern's tourist information office warns that this is only for strong, experienced swimmers.) On summer days, the Bernese hike upstream 5 to 30 minutes, then float back down to the excellent (and free) riverside baths and pools (Marzilibad) just below the parliament building. The process is simple: Hike up the paved riverside sidewalk as far as you like, then take the steps leading into the water whenever you want to "put in." As you approach Marzilibad, stroke over to the shore to grab one of the several poles placed to help people exit the river. The locals make it look easy, but this can be dangerous — the current is swift. If you miss the last pole, you're history.
If a float down the river is a bit much for you, enjoy the Marzilibad, a well-equipped public swimming pool and park with picnic spots, restaurant, lockers, wading pools, games, and more.
This well-displayed, thought-provoking collection shows art produced by untrained artists, many labeled (and even locked up) by society as "criminal" or "insane."
Lausanne's cathedral is an Evangelical Reform Church, meaning that it belongs to the tradition of the early Protestant reformer John Calvin. They hold free organ concerts here, generally on Friday evenings (check the schedule online or ask at the cathedral welcome center).
This museum celebrates the colorful history of the Olympic Games. It's set in a beautiful lakeview park where the Olympic flame flickers between editions of the games. The museum is a thrill for Olympics buffs — and plenty of fun for those of us who just watch every two years.
See the Travel Details above for recommendations highlighted in bold, excerpted from Rick's guidebooks.
Hi, I'm Rick Steves, back with more of the Best of Europe. This time we're in Switzerland enjoying not its majestic Alps…but its fascinating cities. Thanks for joining us.
Whether enjoying its traditional culture high in the mountains or savoring the joys of modern life in its great cities, the Swiss get it right. In this episode we focus on an often overlooked side part of Switzerland — its urban charm.
We'll get some easy exercise — floating with locals…and ring one very big bell. We'll enjoy a variety of art from stained glass by Marc Chagall, to bold works by artists considered insane. We'll see how the Swiss use blue lights as part of a creative drug policy and explore a secret underground fortress built as a defense against the Nazis. And, we'll experience that incomparable Swiss natural beauty with a cruise on a romantic paddle wheeler.
Nestled in the center of Europe is Switzerland. While much of the country is dominated by the Alps, most of its population is in the northwest — a gentler land of lakes and cities. From Zürich we travel to Luzern, Bern, and Lausanne.
Like many visits to Switzerland, ours starts in its biggest city — Zürich. While it's a major transportation hub and many just pass through, it's a powerhouse city and well worth a look.
The Swiss joke that Zürich is zu reich and zu ruhig — that's a play on German words for "too rich" and "too quiet." Sure it's rich…and there are livelier places, but Zürich is comfortable and it consistently ranks as one of the world's most livable cities.
Zürich's history goes back to Roman times. By the 19th century it was a leading European financial and economic center. Its people are known for their wealth and for working hard to earn it. Like most Swiss cities, it embraces its river or lake in a fun-loving way. The lakefront is a springboard for romantic walks, bike rides, and cruises. A great way to glide across town is to catch the riverboat, which functions like a city bus, and just enjoy the view.
Its old town is lively day and night with cafés, galleries, and a colorful cobbled ambience. Zürich's main drag, Bahnhofstrasse, is famous for its elegant shops. If you're looking for a fancy watch, stunning jewelry, or a $1,000 sweater…this is the place.
For more affordable extravagance — these delightful mini-macarons — a local favorite — may be expensive…but they won't break the bank.
The city's art treasure is in its Fraumünster (or "Church of Our Lady"): a set of five towering stained glass windows by Marc Chagall. His inimitable painting style — deep colors, simple figures, and shard-like Cubism — is perfectly suited for the medium of stained glass.
The windows depict Bible scenes — here Jacob dreams of his ladder — the traffic of angels symbolizing the connection between God above and Jacob's descendants (the Children of Israel) below. Old Testament images — King David with his harp, Moses with the Ten Commandments, and the angel blowing the ram's horn to announce the creation of a new Jerusalem, all create a cohesive message drawing you to the central window. Here, a jumble of events from Christ's life leads to the central figure in God's plan of salvation – a crucified yet ascendant Jesus Christ.
But nearby, the leading entertaining heavenly character in Zürich is its guardian angel. Hovering above the main hall in the central train station, she protects all travelers and adds to the energy of the station. Situated at the center of Western Europe, this major European transportation hub handles 2,000 trains a day zipping people all over Europe.
Shortly after leaving Zürich, the train ride becomes a scenic joyride. And 30 minutes later we pull into Luzern.
Since the Romantic era in the 19th century, Luzern has been a regular stop on the "Grand Tour" route of Europe. Its inviting lakefront now includes a modern concert hall — which incorporates the lake into its design. The old town, with a pair of picture-perfect wooden bridges, straddles the Reuss River where it tumbles out of Lake Lucerne.
The bridge was built at an angle in the 14th century to connect the town's medieval fortifications. Today it serves strollers rather than soldiers as a peaceful way to connect two sides of town. Many are oblivious to the fascinating art just overhead.
Under the rafters hang about 100 colorful 17th-century paintings showing scenes from Luzern and its history. This legendary giant dates to the Middle Ages, when locals discovered mammoth bones which they mistakenly thought were the bones of a human giant. Here's Luzern in about 1400 — the bridge, already part of the city fortifications. And Luzern looked like this in 1630.
Luzern is responsible for controlling the lake level. By regulating the flow of water out of its lake, the city prevents the flooding of lakeside villages when the snow melts.
In the mid-19th century, the city devised and built this extendable dam. By adding and taking away these wooden slats, they could control the level of the lake.
Swans are a fixture on the river today. Locals say they arrived in the 17th century as a gift from the French king Louis XIV in appreciation for the protection his Swiss Guards gave him. Switzerland has a long history of providing strong and loyal warriors to foreign powers.
The city's famous Lion Monument recalls the heroism of more Swiss mercenaries. The mighty lion rests his paws on a French shield. Tears stream down his cheeks. The broken-off end of a spear is slowly killing the noble beast. The sad lion is a memorial to over 700 Swiss mercenaries who were killed defending Marie-Antoinette and Louis XVI during the French Revolution.
The people of Luzern take full advantage of their delightful river with a variety of cafés and restaurants along its banks. This evening, we're enjoying the setting as much as the food. I'm having the local pork. My producer Simon is having eel fresh from the river. With a picturesque setting like this, the dining experience makes for a wonderful memory.
Boats connect towns around Lake Lucerne. That's its English name, but the Swiss call it the Vierwaldstättersee — literally, "Lake of the Four Forest Cantons." That's because it lies at the intersection of four of Switzerland's cantons or states. Romantics will want to ride one of the classic paddleboat steamers. A short ride drops you at any number of interesting sights — one of which come with a surprise.
Imagine it's 1941. You're Swiss; your country is completely surrounded by Hitler and Mussolini. The Nazis are on the move. What to do? [knock, knock] Turn your mountains into a hidden fortress.
The Swiss managed to make their rugged mountains an even more effective barrier. How? By lots of strategic tunneling.
One example, the Fortress Fürigen has done its duty. Recently decommissioned, it now welcomes visitors interested in Switzerland's secret defenses.
Guide: In central Switzerland we have now nine forts like this, bigger ones and smaller ones. There are installed I think in total 44 canons.
The Swiss implemented a plan to retreat into the mountainous heart of the country and defend themselves with a series of hidden fortresses dug into mountain sides like this one.
Guide: Here we enter into bunker #2. You see here the canon. You can turn it, the elevation…
Rick: I can sit here on the gun. Can I sit on this?
Guide: Yeah you can.
Rick: Push this down? 62—
Guide: Fine, yeah.
Rick: And then I go, I want to go to 21.
Guide: Fine, yes.
Rick: Wow there it is, 62 21, the top of the peak.
Guide: Fire [laugh].
With the advent of the Cold War in the 1950s, the fortress was retooled for the threat of the USSR. The Swiss have since found documents indicating that both the Nazis and the Soviets actually had plans to invade Switzerland.
Guide: This is the bedroom for 100 soldiers; 50 beds, they have to share it because they have to work in shifts. This is the dining room and over here the kitchen. And all these rooms and other forts have been built for survival of Switzerland. Hitler took Belgium, Netherlands and we had the feeling we are next.
Wandering through this hidden fortress you're reminded how perilous Switzerland's position was in the 20th century and how committed the Swiss were to defending their freedom.
Switzerland is laced together by an efficient train system. Its trains are fast, frequent, and easy to use — taking you effortlessly and scenically from downtown to downtown. Our next stop: the capital city…Bern.
The city of Bern is built on a peninsula created by a hairpin turn of the Aare River.
Its pointy towers and arcaded streets make it one of Europe's finest surviving medieval towns. Bern is stately but accessible, classy but fun.
The city, founded in 1191, has managed to avoid war damage and hasn't burned down since 1405. After that fire, wooden buildings were discouraged, and Bern gained its gray-green sandstone complexion.
Colorful 16th-century fountains are Bern's trademark. They were commissioned to brighten up the stony cityscape, to show off the town's wealth, and to remind citizens of local heroes and events. The city is named for its mascot, a bear — and bears are a reoccurring theme all over town.
This famous clock tower was part of the main gate of the original town wall. One side of it has a playful mechanical show, appropriate in this country famous for its time pieces. The clock, which dates back to 1530, still performs each hour. While you can see the medieval clock mechanism from inside — fascinating in this land of clock and watch makers — most people enjoy the show from outside. At the top of the hour the rooster crows… the bears promenade as the happy jester comes to life. Father Time turns his hourglass and the rooster crows once more…as he has for about 500 years. In its day, this was a high-tech marvel.
In this elegant city, you may brush elbows with some high-powered legislators, but you wouldn't know it. Everything feels casual for a national capital. The Swiss are very comfortable with their own style of democracy.
The Swiss government is a bicameral system actually inspired by the United States Constitution, with one big difference: Executive power is shared by a committee of seven, with a rotating ceremonial president and a passion for consensus. This is a mechanism to avoid a power grab by a single individual…a safeguard that the Swiss believe strengthens and protects their democracy.
Observant travelers will notice how the Swiss government deals with its social problems with pragmatism and innovation. Too many cars and chronically unemployed people? Create a program providing free loaner bikes…run by people who would otherwise be collecting unemployment benefits.
Like the United States, Switzerland is dealing with a persistent drug abuse problem. The Swiss believe the purpose of a nation's drug policy should be to reduce the harm drugs cause their society. Like many Europeans, they treat substance abuse more as a health problem than a criminal problem. Rather than fill their jails, the Swiss employ methods they find are both more compassionate and more pragmatic.
For instance, to help fight the spread of AIDS and other diseases, street-side vending machines dispense government-subsided needles — cheap and safe. There are needle-disposal boxes. Many public toilets are lit by blue lights. If users can't find their veins, they'll shoot up elsewhere — it's hoped at heroin maintenance centers, which provide addicts with counseling, clean needles, and a safe alternative to the streets.
And casual use of marijuana is tolerated. Locals pass joints with no apparent worries in the shadow of the cathedral ignored by others who simply enjoy life in a society that believes tolerating alternative lifestyles makes more sense than building more prisons.
Bern's cathedral is capped with a 330-foot-tall tower, the highest in Switzerland. While it was built as a Catholic church, later in the 16th century with the Reformation, it became Protestant — that's why it is so sparsely decorated.
The Swiss Protestants were iconoclasts — they considered statues of saints and Catholic art to be false idols — distractions from God — and destroyed them. This church was originally adorned with 26 different little chapels and altars each dedicated to a different saint or the Virgin Mary. When the Reformation came to town in 1528…all that was swept away. The focus was shifted away from images and to the pulpit from where Protestant preachers shared the Word of God not in Latin…but in the people's language.
Browsing through this barren place of worship, you can sense the effectiveness of one man preaching from the pulpit to an undistracted congregation.
Climbing the spire, you'll see Protestants had absolutely no problem with great bells.
Guide: This is the biggest bell of Switzerland and it's over 10 tons. And we are also very proud that we have the highest tower of Switzerland. It's over 100 meters, exactly 101 meters.
Art lovers enjoy Bern's Paul Klee Center. With its wavy building mirroring the wavy landscape, Italian architect Renzo Piano's building celebrates the creative spirit of the Swiss-born artist Paul Klee. While famous as a painter, Klee embraced all forms of creative expression. The center — which fosters music and theater as well as the visual arts — has a mission: to bring art to the people. A generous zone is devoted to a children's workshop. Kids love Paul Klee…and kids always teach the art snobs a thing or two with their interpretations. The shadow theater sparks young imaginations.
Artistically, you just can't put Klee in a box. His paintings — mostly from the 1920s and '30s — are playful yet enigmatic. Audio guides let you enjoy Klee's favorite music as you wander through his paintings. He experimented in pointillism — as you see in Ad Parnassum. His art is full of symbolism…or maybe we just think so.
Insula Dulcamara — literally "bittersweet island" — is a good example of Klee's abstract hieroglyph style. It's a puzzle — he pairs opposites…man, woman…air, water. It's 1938…is that a submarine on the horizon evoking the rise of Fascism? Perhaps the black figures are death in a spring-like landscape, which is eternal.
And when the sun comes out, it seems everyone's heading for the banks of the Aare River. The riverside park is a lively playground. The Bernese, proud of their very clean river and their basic ruddiness, have a tradition — sort of a wet paseo. On summer days, they hike upstream, then float back into town.
For something to write home about, join the locals and the trout in a float down the river.
Our final big city visit is another hour away by train.
Lausanne perches elegantly overlooking Lake Geneva. The city is made of two charming zones: the idyllic waterfront and the tangled and historic old town. Locals nickname their town the San Francisco of Switzerland for all its hills. There's no way to see it without lots of climbing. Lausanne's pedestrianized Rue de Bourg has the finest shops. By the way, be careful with the pronunciation, many confuse Lausanne with Luzern.
Lausanne's collection of fringe art — or Art Brut — fills one of Europe's most thought-provoking art galleries.
It presents works by self-taught creators who, for various reasons, escaped cultural conditioning and social conformity. The people who made this art were completely untrained — as free-spirited as artists can be.
These pieces were created by amateur artists — many who were labeled (and even locked up) by society as "insane" or even "criminally insane." Thumbnail biographies of these outsiders personalize their work.
In the 1940s, the artist Jean Dubuffet began collecting art produced by people he called "free from artistic culture and free from fashion tendencies." Dubuffet said, "The art does not lie in beds ready-made for it. It runs away when its name is called. It wants to be incognito. Its best moments are when it forgets what it's called."
There's nothing incognito about Lausanne's cathedral — the biggest church in Switzerland. This is another example of a Swiss Protestant church. Once again, it was built Catholic and dedicated to Mary. But when the Reformation hit, Swiss reformers purged it of religious ornamentation — colorfully frescoed walls were whitewashed, stained glass windows trashed, statues of Mary and the saints smashed.
Today, the church remains clean of images — with the exception of an extravagant pipe organ — its 7,000 pipes evoking the trumpets of Jericho and the wings of angels.
For six centuries a watchman has called the churches tower home. His job: to watch for fires and to call out the hours. Since the last big fire, a watchman has manned this post…the last one of its kind in Switzerland. Each night he steps onto his balcony and hollers the hour.
Watchman: [Calling the hour in Swiss German]
The real charm of Lausanne lies on its lakefront, a district called Ouchy. What was once an aristocratic promenade is now the happy domain of commoners, office workers and roller skaters strutting their stuff. Romantic old-time steamers connect travelers scenically to points all around Lake Geneva. On a crisp day you can see the French Alps; Chamonix and Mount Blanc are just out of sight.
Ouchy's sightseeing highlight is a fine park and museum devoted to the Olympic Games. This museum celebrates the colorful history of the Olympics and the founder of the modern games, Pierre de Coubertin. In 1896, after a 1,500 year lapse — and in the spirit of world peace — he restarted the games.
The exhibit traces the history of the Olympics. Artifacts recall its original ancient Greek beginnings. A century's worth of ceremonial torches speaks to the resilient majesty of an event that endeavors to bring the world together. Highlights from past Olympiads rekindle the thrill of these quadrillenial games. A section dedicated to the Paralympics celebrates recent inclusivity. Sports fans enjoy recalling their heroes: from the track shoes Carl Lewis used in the 1984 LA games to the skates of Sonja Henie — the 13-year-old Norwegian ice queen. Surveying gear from each sport, you can follow the evolution of equipment that was clearly state of the art…in its day.
And you can complete your tour with a look at how the bronze, silver and gold medals have changed over the years.
From the elegant extravagance of Zürich…. to Luzern, with its iconic wooden bridges…. and from Bern, the country's fun-loving capital, to Lausanne with its gorgeous lakeside setting, Swiss cities are a treat to visit.
As we've seen, there's far more to this country than its towering Alpine peaks. No visit to Switzerland is really complete without sampling its urban charms as well. Thanks for joining us. I'm Rick Steves. Until next time…keep on traveling. Auf wiedersehen.
Guide: There are some others that are still secret.
Rick: Still secret today?
Rick: Ah where are they? [Laugh]
Guide: I don't know.
[Singing] I'm Popeye the sailor man, excuse me.
…For something to write home about, join the locals and the trout in a float down the river.